Synopsis: When Kate, a cynical Christmas store worker who has been continuously unlucky, keeps running into an overly cheerful man and begins to fall for him, her life takes an unexpected turn.
Stars: Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Emma Thompson, Lydia Leonard, Boris Isakovic, Rebecca Root
Director: Paul Feig
Running Length: 102 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: A few months back, the Hallmark Channel announced it had smashed their own record for original seasonal films by offering up a whopping 40 holiday movies that would arrive between October and December. Now, I’m not above spending a day (or two, or three) in front of the television partaking in their programming while wrapping presents or trimming the tree because they tend to be films that don’t require a ton of commitment. There’s a specific guidebook to the way these little larks are crafted where you know going in that the woman who moves back to her hometown to (insert save family business or refurbish inherited money pit) and falls for the local (insert widower, handyman, or widowed handyman) will wind up happy and fulfilled. I got a similar feeling of familiarity while watching Last Christmas but the difference here was that I couldn’t watch this one in my pajamas.
What’s surprising about Last Christmas is just how many talented individuals are involved with what is a fairly standard-fare offering from a major studio. Inspired by and taking its name from the 1984 song from Wham! written by George Michael (when was the last time you saw a movie credited to a song?), the film was developed by Emma Thompson and her husband Greg Wise, with Thompson going on to write the screenplay with performance artist Bryony Kimmings. While it’s exactly the type of mid-budget romantic comedy I’ve often bemoaned the lack of in theaters, it’s often decidedly slight but makes up for that with strong, quirky performances that commit fully to the material that doesn’t always rise to meet them in the middle. Thompson and Kimmings have a knack with introducing a few out of left field characters and ideas but just as soon as they’re established they drop them for something different.
Working as an elf at a Christmas store in London’s Covent Garden selling tacky ornaments, Kate (Emilia Clarke, Terminator Genisys) couch hops amongst her friends instead of living at home with her immigrant parents (Thompson, Late Night and Boris Isakovic). Wearing out her welcome quickly because she tends to act like a human wrecking ball, she has dreams of becoming a musical theater performer but only half-heartedly purses it. She’s more into late nights and a free wheeling attitude, though this being a PG-13 film the worst we see Kate is with tousled hair and streaked eyeliner. After a health scare a year ago, her family and boss (Michelle Yeoh, Crazy Rich Asians) urge her to be kinder to herself but it doesn’t deter Kate from continuing with an unhealthy lifestyle.
That all changes when she spots Tom (Henry Golding, A Simple Favor) outside the shop and strikes up a conversation with him. A man almost too happy-go-lucky but with an air of mystery about him, Kate’s intrigued by Tom but can’t quite put her finger on why. As they get to know each other better, he inspires her in small ways to treat herself with a little more consideration, which leads to Kate finding new passions she can focus on. Several subplots emerge, though none are truly fleshed out by director Paul Feig (Spy) and that’s a disappointment because it feels there are ample opportunities to give a few of the minor characters more of a boost. In the past, Feig has excelled with making stars of of supporting players and while the cast is an appealing mix of different looks, they aren’t fully tapped to step into the spotlight. Instead, too many machinations are put into place in order for Thompson and Kimmings to get to a pivotal turning point in the movie that some will see coming from a mile away. I get why that wrinkle is there but it’s such a minor point you can almost see where the filmmakers tried to parse it down and switch the attention elsewhere after the movie was shot — maybe I’m off base but it sure seems like they did.
Though popular from her time on Game of Thrones, I’m still not quite on the Clarke train yet, but Last Christmas helped get me closer to buying a ticket. She’s a bit more grounded here than her last romantic outing (Me Before You) and you can see the change her character goes through from the start of the movie to the end. Plus, she shows off a sweet singing voice chirping through a few George Michael tunes (the singer’s music is used almost exclusively throughout) and acquitting herself nicely doing so. Golding continues to charm, even if his character is a bit of an enigma most of the time. Thompson gave herself a nice role as Kate’s Yugoslavian mother still worried the KGB is looking for her and Yeoh is a lot of fun as Kate’s spiky boss. Her strangely funny romance with a German man is so odd and inconsequential to the movie as a whole, I was surprised it made the final cut even if it was fairly amusing.
This is making it sound like Last Christmas is a tough movie to sit through and it’s not – it’s more enjoyable than I’m making it out to be. While watching the movie, I was quite taken by it’s brisk pace and ability to bounce forward without getting too tangled in plot developments that would drag other similar movies down. The script eliminates the usual entanglements often present in romantic comedies and clears the way for Kate to be center stage. It helps that Clarke is at her most likable and that she’s not such a disaster we don’t want to see her pick herself up and succeed. It’s a very timely movie as well, with newsworthy discussions of Brexit of all things coming into play (albeit briefly) and using that as another way for Kate to connect not just with her family but with other people in her city. It’s a bit shoehorned in and a rather obvious statement moment, but it’s valuable nonetheless. The only thing that truly bothered me is that Feig didn’t know how the end the movie. There’s at least one scene too many at the end, maybe two depending on how tidy you like your edges when a movie wraps up.
Like those schmaltzy Hallmark movies, Last Christmas is arriving well ahead of the Christmas rush in order to beat the crowded boon of films vying for your attention as we head into a busy December. It’s a smart move because there’s not a whole lot else like it out there right now. At times it gets to feel like it’s moving through a checklist of people and situations required to be in these movies but somehow I went along with it without much fuss. I recognize the movie can often be like one of those gaudy ornaments Kate is selling (and of which I own a few of). You know it’s not the greatest, the prettiest, or the most expensive but you still like to look at it for what it means to you. You’ll definitely put it on your tree…but maybe it will go closer to the bottom or toward the back. I don’t think it’s destined to be a new Christmas classic but neither are any of those Hallmark movies that come out every year.